This year’s SEJ awards highlight innovation in science reporting

In Karnes County, Texas, environmental damage from the fracking industry has gotten so bad that one resident won’t let her young grandson play outside. In nearby Gonzales County, a resident pleads for help for the people of South Texas “before we all die.”

So goes “Big Oil, Bad Air,” the story of the Eagle Ford Shale deposit, a collaborative production that took first place for in-depth reporting in this year’s Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual awards for reporting on the environment. Many of the winners, announced today, follow similar tales of destruction from callous industries: There’s Rob Davis’ series on oil trains careening through the Pacific Northwest while carrying volatile materials, which the judges called “investigative journalism at its finest” and which won first place for in-depth reporting in a small market. (Davis’ environmental coverage at The Oregonian also took first for beat reporting in a small market.) There’s the Houston Chronicle’s persistent coverage of a deadly leak at a DuPont pesticide plant–reported by Lise Olsen, Mark Collette, and Karen Chen–in a city heavily dominated by DuPont’s influence. And there’s Sharon Lerner’s alarming piece for The Nation documenting a South Florida community’s battle to uncover the cause of a cluster of brain cancer cases.

Peppered among the investigations of wrongdoing and human suffering are some storytelling gems, like Tim Wheeler’s Baltimore Sun profile of the “squirrel man,” an 83-year-old former US Fish and Wildlife Service employee who’s spent decades working to save the Delmarva fox squirrel from extinction. Wheeler’s coverage earned him second place in the small market beat-reporting category. Tim Howard’s first-place feature story “Galapagos,” reported for Radiolab and NPR, also relied heavily on strong characters, like a naturalist who vies for attention by standing on a busy street. “All of the characters and sounds wrapped up in curiosity carried us to the Galapagos,” the judges wrote of Howard’s piece.

While environmental reporters can often feel they’re reporting the same piece over and over—climate change is real, pollution is killing another species—this year’s SEJ winners show there’s plenty of room for innovative, high-impact, and fascinating stories about humans and our natural world. (The World’s Jason Margolis, in fact, won second place in large-market beat reporting because his climate change pieces “were framed in new and unexpected ways,” the judges wrote, like a classical music album about climate change that became an unexpected hit.)

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They also demonstrated the reporting power that can arise when different players in the modern media landscape collaborate. “Big Oil, Bad Air” was credited to an astounding 24 individuals from three different organizations, none of them a traditional news outlet. The Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, both nonprofits, teamed up with The Weather Channel, the old-fashioned weather network that’s gone rogue with investigative journalism and documentary production. (Full disclosure: I was previously employed by both CPI and The Weather Channel.) The vast breadth of the project—50 open records requests, 42 stories, three documentaries—push the limits of what journalism can accomplish, and, together with the other winners, show the full power and scope of environmental reporting. A warm congratulations to them all.

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Laura Dattaro is a freelance reporter in New York with a focus on the environment and an interest in all things science.